Jefferson's America: The President, the Purchase, and the Explorers Who Transformed a Nation

Image of Jefferson's America: The President, the Purchase, and the Explorers Who Transformed a Nation
Release Date: 
January 5, 2017
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Newspaper editor John O’Sullivan is generally credited with the development of, if not necessarily coining, the expression Manifest Destiny, the notion or idea that the United States of America should “overspread” the North American continent, bringing republican virtues and civilization to the vast wilderness of the West.

Although the concept was a mid-19th century creation, it was the administration of President Thomas Jefferson that set it in motion through a series of exploratory expeditions, following the Louisiana Purchase. The most famous and most successful, of course, was that of Lewis and Clark’s so-called Corps of Discovery to the Pacific Ocean and back.

What is less known or realized are the others he dispatched to the source of the Mississippi River, led by Zebulon Pike, and the Red and Arkansas in the southern section of the Purchase, as much to make observations of flora, fauna and other data of scientific interest as to, hopefully, determine the borders of the Purchase relative to Spanish holdings in the Southwest.

Author Julie M. Fenster has researched not just the incidents and figures in each of these explorations but also the many personal, political and international, intrigues and travails behind the scenes with Spain, France and Great Britain, Jefferson’s political enemies of the Federalist Party, Aaron Burr and army commander General James Wilkinson.

Although Jefferson was sincerely and keenly interested in the scientific possibilities of western exploration, he also looked to expand the country’s territory (including East and West Florida) and permanently finalize the Purchase’s western borders while forestalling additional inroads in the West by imperial European powers.

Additionally, Fenster has also detailed the back and forth nature of possession of Louisiana between Spain and France, a story little known to most. Napoleon Bonaparte had wanted to reestablish French hegemony in North America but needed money to continue to finance his many wars in Europe and, in spite of promising Spain to not divest France of this “province,” he did so almost immediately upon acquiring it.

In the days of empire, all land that bordered a river or other body of water was considered the possession of the discovering nation. As a result, this caused many disputes between national rivals. Thus, the need to establish the borders of Louisiana by exploring the various rivers to their headwaters, determining their length, observing flora and fauna for the advancement of science, and developing friendly relations with Native American tribes encountered.

With Spain well established in the Southwest for hundreds of years, the lesser known expeditions on the Red and Arkansas Rivers tended to be somewhat more dangerous as much for the obvious natural hazards as the possibility of running afoul of the Spaniards and potentially precipitating war between the two nations.

In the case of Lewis and Clark, in the north, the rival was Great Britain and its North West Company in competition for the natural resources found there. It was nearly another 40 years before the boundary dispute in that theater was settled by diplomatic treaty.

Finally, Zebulon Pike’s expedition to the West, following his—incorrect, as it turned out—discovery of the source of the Mississippi, was fraught with multiple perils, due as much to disregarding his orders from General Wilkinson as it was to exploring Colorado in the dead of winter, nearly perishing along with his command.

The large map at the front of the book shows the North American continent in 1803–1804 and the extent of the respective territories of each nation. The other maps included, generally at the beginning of a chapter, are extremely helpful in showing each expedition’s area of exploration, border uncertainties, and distances.

The photographic section has illustrations and drawings of prominent figures, places and artifacts. There are also a few black and white photographs of places (one of which no longer exists) following the advent of photography later in the 19th century.

The notes reference quotes and other expressions so there are no actual citations in the text, yet the selected bibliography does show extensive research in primary and secondary sources.

Although Lewis and Clark have gotten the most press when it comes to this topic, this volume should be of considerable interest to readers in terms of the expeditions which haven’t, along with the intrigues and machinations referenced above.

Slave ownership and the Sally Hemings controversy aside, we have much for which to thank Thomas Jefferson and his vision for America.